The Pampas and Andes

views updated

The Pampas and Andes

A Thousand Miles' Walk Across South America

Book excerpt

By: Nathaniel H. Bishop

Date: 1869

Source: Bishop, Nathaniel H. The Pampas and Andes: A Thousand Miles' Walk Across South America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Library, 2005.

About the Author: Nathaniel Bishop left Massachusetts at the tender age of seventeen in 1855 with a goal to travel throughout South America on foot. He had forty-five dollars to his name. Over the next two years, he traveled more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) throughout Argentina and Chile. His book discusses the landscape, the environment, and Charles Darwin's theories, and it makes keen observations about the land. Bishop later became a member of the Boston Society of Natural History, and of the New York Academy of Sciences, as well as a distinguished canoeing specialist and popular author of travel memoirs.


The Pampas and Andes chronicles Nathaniel Bishop's two-year odyssey throughout South America. During his travels, Bishop carefully documented his observations of the actions of the natives, his personal activities, and the landscapes, plants, and animal life he encountered. Unlike many naturalist books published in this time period, Bishop's work blends observation of nature with travel memoir, focusing more on his own personal experiences than on meticulous recounting of information with the goal of expanding scientific knowledge.

In contrast to Thomas Belt's The Naturalist in Nicaragua or Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, Bishop's goal was not to broaden scientific literature on geology, geography, biology, or natural science, but instead to tell his story of travel and to describe his personal experiences. Focusing more on native interactions, Bishop's book reads like a travelogue.

Its publication in 1869, fourteen years after the author's journeys, fed the American and European public's demand for nature-based stories; Bishop went on to publish two other travel memoirs, The Voyage of the Paper Canoe and Four Months in a Sneak-Box. The Pampas and Andes was a very popular book in its time, promoted as a travel memoir as well as a book for young boys; by 1883 it was in its eleventh edition.

A number of books detailing South America, such as Domingo Faustino Sarmiento's Facundo, Mary Peabody Mann's translation of Life in the Argentine Republic in the Days of the Tyrants, and Belt's The Naturalist in Nicaragua—all published within a few years of Bishop's work—collectively generated tremendous interest in the flora and fauna of South America. Together with The Origin of Species, these books provided both scientific information and literary entertainment for the upper and middle classes. In addition, Bishop's rich narrative provides a snapshot of the native groups he encountered, their beliefs and rituals, and their use of the land.


… Taking a south-westerly course across the desert, I travelled until three o'clock over the same dreary waste, when a deep fissure was observed in the sierra, which I entered, and soon found myself within the Flecha. Before passing this peculiar gap, a word or two regarding it may prove interesting. For many leagues along its course the sierra presents an impassable barrier to man or beast. The Flecha is a narrow passage from the desert on the east to the valley on the western side. The sides of the Flecha are of solid rock, rising perpendicularly to a great height.

The pass exhibits the action of water upon its sides, for the rock has been worn smooth in past ages, and the bed of the passage is covered with pebbles. Undoubtedly, a long time since, a strong body of water found its way through this place, and may have submerged the plain below; but whether this gap was the bed of a natural stream, or mere vent, through which the melting snow escaped during the spring mouths, cannot now be well determined. The effect that the lofty sides of the Flecha have upon independent objects is very curious. My horse seemed to dwindle to the size of a Shetland pony when I removed a few yards from him, and two muleteers, who passed through at the same time, looked like pygmies.

Half way up the precipice were holes, said to have been cut by the ancient discoverers of the country, to assist in searching for precious metals, but, proving unprofitable, had been abandoned. I continued along the valley until dusk, when the barking of dogs, and occasional glimpses of a light, guided me to one side of the valley, where a few huts constitute the hamlet of El Durazno. These huts were inhabited by muleteers, who suffered greatly from poverty. Here and there the rough soil had been levelled, so as to be susceptible of irrigation, and a few patches of clover gave a cheering aspect, when contrasted with the barren mountains behind the hamlet. An old woman invited me to enter her house, and pass the night, as it was damp outside, and the heavy clouds that hovered about us looked as if about to descend.

The hut was built of sticks and mud, and adjoining it was the kitchen. Having turned my horse adrift, I entered, and, as I reclined upon a skin couch, commenced inquiring of the hostess relative to the snow on the main Cordillera. I was unable, however, to obtain any information from that source. Our party was soon increased by the entry of several rude-looking fellows, armed with long knives. The place was so small that we reclined, packed one against the other, men, women, and children, promiscuously. The old woman commenced cooking an asado upon the fire; it had hardly begun to splutter and crackle, when the dog that had sat beside the fire caught up the meat in his mouth, and commenced masticating it with great gusto. The woman, screaming out, "O, sus Ave Maria!" made a clutch at the dog, but was unsuccessful in recovering the prize. One of the men caught the animal by the throat, and choked him until the meat was drawn from his mouth, when, with a hasty "Ha, perro!" it was returned to the fire, and cooked for the lookers-on. More men and dogs came in, and, thinking it best to retreat while it remained in my power to do so, I requested my hostess to allow me to retire. Taking a saucer of fat, in which a bit of rag was burning, she led the way into the other shanty, and assisted in spreading my saddle cloths upon a rough sofa, built of boards, which had been placed in the middle of the floor to prevent the approach of the binchucas that were secreted in the crevices in the walls.

These uncomfortable disturbers of night dreams are as large as the common May beetle, and are armed with a bill that of a mosquito, which is used with great effect upon the victim. Before fixing upon a person, the body of the binchuca is thin and flat; but after his feast is over, he is bloated and disgusting to hook upon. As this tormentor is many times larger than the mosquito, so does the irritability caused by its leeching process exceed in like proportion that of the other pest.

When about to withdraw from the room, the woman bade me sleep with the utmost confidence, and not fear any harm. But as the conversation of the men in the kitchen had been about the plata that might be in my possession, I was very particular to impress her with the idea that North Americans feared nothing; and at the same time I drew a long knife from under my poncho, and placed it beneath the sheep-skin that was to serve for my bed. When she withdrew, I lay down; but as I had a thought of the Binchucas before I prepared for sleep, I carefully rolled myself in my blankets, Indian fashion, and defied them to do their worst.

Hardly had I begun to doze, when a sensation of something disagreeable, touching me, aroused me to the fact that the vile pests were coming from every quarter of the hovel. I could hear them crawling up the sides of the room and across the ceiling, when with their usual degree of impudence, one after another dropped plump upon my body. But my swathing clothes served as an armor, and they could not enter in to the feast. All the while they clung with considerable tenacity to the coarse blankets, trying to effect an entrance, but they had met their conqueror; for, after waiting until the swarming was over, and the army had fairly camped upon me, I suddenly and carefully rolled over and over upon the sofa, until the life was forced out of nearly all of them, when, satisfied that a great victory had been achieved, I dropped into a deep slumber.

When morning came, and I passed out of the hut, I found that the valley was filled with mist, and I deferred setting out until the thick clouds had scattered. About nine o'clock a breeze sprang up, which soon cleared the valley of mists, and I resumed my journey. Soon after my leaving El Durazno, the valley expanded into a plain of a desert character. The country between the mountains again became undulating and broken; at three leagues from the last hamlet, El Sequion, a collection of two or three mud houses and several ranchos, appeared.

From one of these ranchos a China (half Indian) woman came out, and questioned me as to my motives for traveling alone, on foot, in the desolate valley. When I spoke of crossing the Cordillera, the good creature lifted both her hands, and exclaimed in colloquial Spanish, "Por Dios, don't go any farther. A man from Chili stopped here the other day—his mouth and cheeks were like a soft peach with the frost!" Another woman joined us, and declared that I was too young to be so far from home, and questioned me to the effect "if my mother knew that I was out." In their inquiries, however, they exhibited a kindness that to me was very gratifying, and I felt that in case of accident upon the road, I had at least two friends near at hand.

Beyond the Sequion, the valley grew narrower, and in places was so filled with stones and detritus as to lame the old horse. The road now became a mere defile, the steep sides of the sierras towering above it to a great height, their bareness being sometimes relieved by dwarf cacti, that grew in crevices where soil had lodged; these plants were in flower, some white, others of a yellow hue.

The clouds again enveloped the mountains, and while I was groping along over the broken rock, the tinkling of a mule's bell broke the stillness, and a moment later I came upon a circle of packsaddles and mules' cargoes, lying upon the ground. A deep voice called out, "Come here, friend;" and I was soon acquainted with the capataz and muleteers of Don Fernando de Oro, a rich San Juan merchant, who had sent his troop to Uspallata to await an opportunity to cross to Chili, in advance of the troops of the other merchants. The don was daily expected by the capataz; who had been three or four days on the road already. The capataz urged me to remain with the troop until the next morning, which invitation I accepted, and tying my horse to some resinous bushes, I sat down to a sumptuous meal of boiled corn, dried beef, and pepper, while my jaded animal satisfied himself in cropping the tops of the bushes, and a kind of stunted weed that grew among the rocks. Towards dusk it rained, but my heavy blanket kept me dry. The guides huddled around the dying embers, vainly endeavoring to warm their benumbed limbs; around us the hills seemed to be shaken by the heavy thunders that reverberated along the mountain tops.

Fearing that my horse would give out, as he had lived mostly upon bushes and coarse herbage since leaving San Juan, I arose early, and, guided by the bright starlight, caught my animal, and led him up the valley. A spur of the sierra blocked up the valley, and this steep ascent had to be climbed by the poor animal, he halting every few steps to draw breath. Having reached the summit, he heaved a deep sigh, as if conscious of having finished a hard task.

A magnificent view rewarded me for the exertion of making the ascent. The rocky grandeur filled me with awe, for I was surrounded by a sublime chaos—broken hills, valleys, and barren cliffs of the sierra.

A white cloud passed over the valley, shutting me out from sight of the world below; it was no easy task to follow the rocky path beyond; sometimes it led down abrupt descents into dismal valleys, then again almost to the level of the summit of the mountain range. Along this crooked path but one mule can pass at a time, and there are places where it requires but a single unsteady movement to send the loaded animal into the abyss below. For nearly a mile the sierra on the left side was formed of red freestone, and was, in many places, as regular as a castle wall. In this lonely place the least sound would catch my ear.

The sierra that I had crossed is called the Paramilla, or "bleak place;" in the warmest day a cold wind from the snow peaks of the Andes blows drearily across it. Leaving the broken mass of rock, the path descended abruptly into a little valley, which contained a stone hut, and a corral for goats. This desolate spot was enlivened by the presence of one of the prettiest señoras that I ever met. She informed me that her husband, who was then hunting guanacos, supported himself principally by keeping goats that browsed upon the sides of the mountains. When he wished to butcher any of the guanacos, he, with the assistance of a pack of trained curs, drove them into natural rock walled corrals among the mountains, where, hemmed in, the animals were easily dispatched with the boliadores and knife.

Leaving the valley, I ascended to a high plain that seemed to be on a level with the summits of the neighboring range of the Cordilleras, and as the sun was about sinking below the western horizon, I perceived that this was to be my camping-place for the night. Laying the saddle upon the ground for a pillow, and carefully spreading the blankets, I lay down to rest, having first tied my horse to a stunted bush, which he vainly tried to eat.

I dropped into a restless slumber; but an hour later, a wild, desolate cry caused me to spring from my blankets, and prepare for defense. I had been told many stories of the cruelty of the puma, or American lion, and at this moment feared that one of these animals was on the plain. It was along this part of the road the guides had seen their tracks, and hunters had run them down with dogs a few miles from the plain upon which I had encamped.

Another wild cry, and the animal passed along the plain without heeding either my horse or me, to be left in peace, into a sound sleep, that continued unbroken until the rising sun gilded the snowy crests of the lofty Cordillera.

It was a beautiful scene that lay before me. Across the plain floated white clouds of mist, like airy spirits, while before me lay a narrow valley, through which the road led to Uspallata. Upon one side of the plain rose several low hills, green with coarse herbage, upon which a small herd of llamas were as if unconscious of the presence of man.

I soon was ready to start; but my old horse seemed incapable of moving. I rubbed his stiff limbs until I had worked myself into a perspiration; he was so far recovered as to be able to move slowly. I seized the lasso, and led him on as before.

The road descended to the ravine just referred to, and for an hour or so my journey led through the surrounding cliffs; but at length we again emerged upon a flat plain, covered with low bushes, and over this I led the way until afternoon, when a green spot at the foot of a high of mountains, and the hut of a farmer, caught my eye, and soon after I drew up before the last house in the Argentine Republic—the Guardo of Uspallata….


After returning to the United States from his excursion throughout South America, Bishop developed a lifelong interest in canoeing and became an expert in the field. He went on to write other travel memoirs that involved the details of canoeing expedition, using the same precise, descriptive language not only to convey information about canoes and the sport, but also to deliver to the audience a rich narrative that evoked the natural world in which he traveled.

Bishop's next book, The Voyage of the Paper Canoe (1878), was devoted to his 2,500-mile (4,000-kilometer) canoe journey through North America, traversing the waterways from Quebec to Mexico in a canoe made of paper. Using only an 18-foot (5.5-meter) canoe and traveling with one assistant, Bishop followed the rivers and detailed his experience. The following year he published Four Months in a Sneak Box, yet another travelogue recounting his 2,500-mile (4,000-kilometer) canoe adventure through the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to the Gulf of Mexico.

Bishop describes at length his experience passing through the Cumbre Pass, the best route for crossing the Andes to reach Chile from Argentina. Nearly fifty-five years after his travels, the Transandine Railway connected Buenos Aires to Santiago by train; Bishop covered the trek on foot and by mule, a dangerous trip he discusses in the book as locals describe stories of those who died trying to go through Cumbre Pass.

Bishop's publications solidified his standing as a naturalist and adventure writer. His attention to the Argentinian Pampas gives modern-day environmentalists and scientists insight into the terrain 150 years ago, and helps in the creation of environmental tracking timelines. The Pampas—like African savannahs, the Australian Outback, or the Great Plains in the United States—recover slowly from environmental impacts, a result of rain and wind erosion as well as soil composition. Bishop's descriptions engaged the imaginations of lay readers and piqued scientific curiosity in contemporary scientists. The Pampas and the Andes gives current biologists, environmental engineers, and other scholars and researchers specializing in the southern cone historical insight into the terrain and the people in the areas Bishop documented.



Briones, Claudia, and Jose Luis Lanata, eds. Archaeological and Anthropological Perspectives on the Native Peoples of Pampa, Patagonia, and Tierra del Fuego to the Nineteenth Century, Westport, Conn.: Bergin & Garvey, 2002.

Roberts, J. Timmons, and Nikki D. Thanos. Trouble in Paradise: Globalization and Environmental Crises in Latin America. New York: Routledge Press, 2003.

Web sites

"Environment in Latin America." LANIC. 〈〉 (accessed March 13, 2006).

About this article

The Pampas and Andes

Updated About content Print Article